All posts in “Politics”

Twitter says it may “refine” its policies after reversing position on Blackburn campaign ad


For the second time in less than three weeks, Twitter has said it will look at its policies following controversy over tweets by a politician. On Tuesday, Twitter reversed a decision it made the day before to block a campaign video from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican representative from Tennessee, for breaking its ad policies. In a media statement, a Twitter spokesperson said “While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues.”

Last month, Twitter promised an update to its “public-facing rules” after explaining that it allowed a tweet by President Donald Trump about North Korea, which critics believed violated the platform’s user policies, to stay up because of its “newsworthiness.”

According to a report by Buzzfeed News, Twitter sent an email to the Blackburn campaign explaining it would allow the video ad if it removed a line mentioning the sale of “baby body parts,” which refer to allegations by anti-abortion against Planned Parenthood which have been discredited by multiple state investigations.

In the email, which was obtained by Buzzfeed, Twitter told the campaign that “The line in this video specific to ‘stopped the sale of baby body parts’ has been deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction. If this is omitted from the video it will be permitted to serve.”

Ironically (but not surprisingly), Twitter’s initial decision to ban the ad gave it more publicity, with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer tweeting that “Twitter continues campaign against GOP.”

Blackburn also used the ban as an opportunity to attack Twitter, Silicon Valley and the “liberal elite” on Twitter.

While critics across the political spectrum have long accused Twitter of applying its policies in an arbitrary way, the divisive political atmosphere in the U.S. has put even more pressure on social media companies like Twitter and Facebook to justify how they enforce their content policies. Adding another layer of complexity to the issue are ongoing Congressional investigations over how much major tech companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google knew about ads that were bought and placed by a Russian company to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Instead of providing clarity, however, Twitter’s promises to “update” or “refine” its policies may add to the confusion, especially if it doesn’t also provide more transparency to how they are applied. TechCrunch has asked Twitter when it will give more specific information about policy changes to users.

Featured Image: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Australia’s facial recognition database will now include driver’s licence photos

Move over Face ID, the Australian government has eclipsed you on the creepy factor.

It’ll allow for photos from government I.D.s and licenses to be added to a national facial recognition database, making it easier for the country’s law enforcement agencies to identify people in real time.

The announcement was made on Thursday by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, following an agreement between all the country’s states and territories. It will be up and running next year, and the government says the database will help bolster national security.

“To be quite clear about this, this is not accessing information, photo I.D. information that is not currently available. We’re talking about bringing together essentially federal government photo I.D.s, passports, visas and so forth, together with driver’s licences,” Turnbull said.

“These are all available to law enforcement agencies now and have been for many years, if not for generations. But what we have not been doing them is accessing them in a modern 21st Century way.

“It shouldn’t take seven days to be able to verify someone’s identity or to seek to match a photograph of somebody that is a person of interest. It should be able to be done seamlessly in real time.”

The “Face Verification Service,” as it’s officially called, was first launched in 2016. It initially however only had access to images from visas and passports — Thursday’s announcement now means agencies will have access to every driver’s licence photo in the country.

Australia isn’t alone. The FBI in the U.S. has a facial recogition system, although it seemingly forgot to tell people about it.

Privacy concerns

Of course, building a database full of nearly every citizen’s face should be concerning. To privacy advocates, it’s another example of civil liberties being slowly eroded by governments.

“This decision is nothing less than a complete betrayal of a fundamental civil liberty of all Australians,” Jon Lawrence, executive officer of Electronic Frontiers Australia said in a statement.

“If implemented, it will ensure that the presumption of innocence no longer has any effective meaning in this country. Such an untargeted, mass surveillance database is just the latest attempt by governments to categorise everyone as potential suspects, not citizens.”

With the effect of certain high-profile hacks coming to light recently, there’s also concern that governments won’t be able to guard this information.

“The public need to be able to trust that governments can adequately house and protect this information,” Tim Singleton Norton, chair of Digital Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“We have seen breaches from agencies such as the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection or the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to name just a few. This should make it very clear that this government is ill-equipped to properly protect citizen’s data.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, Turnbull dismissed these privacy concerns by pointing to the “enormous amount” of people’s data out there already.

“There has never been more data on citizens than there is today,” he said. 

“The vast bulk of it is actually in the private sector and most of it, if you think about the amount of personal data, photographs and so forth, that are held on Facebook accounts, I think around three-quarters of Australians have Facebook accounts, so there is a lot of data out there.”

Still doesn’t make us feel better about the whole thing.

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John Kelly reportedly used a compromised phone for months

He finally got it checked out over the summer.
He finally got it checked out over the summer.

Image: AP/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Today in yes-that-really-happened: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly used a compromised personal cellphone for months. 

The former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security apparently realized something was up during the summer, according to a new report from Politico citing three government officials, after potentially several months of foreign snooping.

Kelly took the device to the White House’s tech team, complaining that it wouldn’t work properly or update software — and hadn’t been right for months. But it turned out that the inability to get himself new Snapchat filters was the least of his worries; the phone was vulnerable to hackers and hostile governments.

Aides circulated a one-page memo through Trump’s administration last month, Politico reports, and Kelly has since stopped using the phone.

It’s unclear why Kelly spent so long with a messed up phone, and what data if any would have been obtained from the device. A White House spokesperson said Kelly hadn’t used the phone “often” since joining the administration, which implies he still kept it around some of the time. Politico doesn’t explain why Kelly was bringing his personal phone to be fixed by the government’s tech team rather than, let’s say, the Genius Bar. One could assume he was using it for government business at some point. 

This isn’t the first time phones have been an issue for the administration. Trump eventually had to give up his Galaxy G3 in January after using the device, which hadn’t had a software update in over a year, for several weeks after the inauguration.

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Senate Intel committee calls on Facebook to release Russian ads


In an update on the progress of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the Senate Intelligence Committee weighed in on recent revelations that have implicated major tech companies. The committee plans to hear open public testimony from Facebook, Twitter and Google on November 1 pertaining to their role in selling political ads to Russian government entities and fostering an environment in which shadowy foreign-funded political propaganda efforts could thrive.

According to the chairman, Richard Burr, it took time for tech leaders to warm up to the notion that they were responsible for influence campaigns run on their platforms. “I was concerned at first that some social media platforms did not take this threat seriously enough,” Burr said. “The three companies we’ve invited, Google, Twitter and Facebook, will appear in a public hearing.”

Burr made it clear that his committee could not release the ads that Facebook handed over as part of the investigation, but Facebook and the other companies are not constrained by the committee from doing so.

“We don’t release documents provided by to our committee, period,” Burr said. “[It’s] not a practice that we’re going to get into. Clearly if any of the social media platforms would like to do that, we’re fine with them doing it because we’ve already got scheduled an open hearing. We believe that the American people deserve to know firsthand.”

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner echoed Burr’s statement.

“There will be more forensics done by these companies,” Warner said. “I think they’ve got some more work to do and I’m pleased to say I think they’re out doing that work now.”

“At the end of the day it’s important that the public sees these ads,” he added.

The committee is focused on three areas of the Russian ad scandal. First, Burr and Warner stated that Americans have a right to know the source of social media ads and if they were created by “foreign entities.” Second, when a story is trending, the committee believes that Americans should be able to determine if that trending topic is a result of bots or otherwise artificial engagement. Third, “you ought to be able to go down and take a look at an ad run for or against you like you’d be able to get a look at that content on TV,” Burr said.

The committee reiterated that its investigation had made it clear that Russia’s efforts to interfere with the American political process are ongoing.

“The Russian active measures efforts did not end on election day 2016,” Warner said. “We need to be on guard.”

For its part, Facebook tried to get ahead of Wednesday’s press briefing, printing a full page ad in The Washington Post as damage control for whatever Burr and Warner said about the company’s role in the election and its interactions with the committee.

TechCrunch has reached out to Facebook about its reaction to today’s committee briefing and will update if and when we hear back.

Featured Image: Facebook

6 reasons Trump should stay away from longer tweets

President Donald Trump seems to enjoy the inflammatory 140-character dispatches that he quickly (and too effortlessly) sends on Twitter.

But when Twitter expands its limit to 280 characters — starting this week for a small group of users — Trump’s relationship to the social media platform may change. And it likely won’t be pretty. 

Twitter announced Tuesday that it was doubling the limit after complaints that the 140-character rule is unfair for certain languages. For example, those who tweet in languages like Japanese tend to tweet more since they feel less restricted. Not so for English speakers.

Now that’s all well and good, but we’re concerned about Trump having access to longer tweets — and not without reason. 

1. More tweets

Twitter found that since more is conveyed with fewer characters in languages like Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, users don’t have to max out or cram a lot into one tweet. Only 0.4 percent of Japanese tweets hit the character limit. Almost 9 percent of English tweets hit the 140-character max. 

Double the tweet, double the fun?

Double the tweet, double the fun?

Image: twitter

OK, so what’s that have to do with Trump? Well, because they have extra space, users in Japan feel inclined to send more tweets. So English-language tweeters, like Trump, will likely tweet more due to the increased character limit.

Looking at Trump’s tweet count, more tweeting is not what anyone needs. He’s already at almost 36,000 tweets since March 2009. He has 234 tweets just with “loser” in it; 91 with “sad!” 

Plus, Twitter’s backend can’t handle more Trump tweets. 

2. More room

This extension is a double-edged sword. This gives room for Trump to better explain himself, but it’s doubtful he’ll use it for thoughtful musings. Really, it gives space for him to make up more lies, insult more people, and bring more ‘covfefe’ moments into our lives.  

Here’s a recent Trump tweet that is exactly 140 characters.

Imagine what nonsense he’d tap out with twice the space?

3. More thoughtless ire

Those additional 140 characters just give the president a bigger platform to mess things up. Pissing off international leaders, like the London mayor (and many others, like, ahem, North Korea); blaming storm-ravaged countries; and ruining companies’ value, like when he tweeted about Amazon, are all examples of Trump using Twitter to blow things up.

Also, nobody wants to see more violent, unnecessary tweets with vulgar GIFs, especially if he keeps attacking the media and Hillary Clinton.

4. More feature fails

Trump already has enough trouble with threading tweets and linking several tweets in a row for a tweetstorm. Remember that time he finished a train of thought hours later: 

Then three hours later…

Lengthier tweets might throw off Trump even more.

5. More blocking

Longer tweets could keep Trump on Twitter for longer periods and prompt more responses and replies to his tweets — that he won’t like. This leaves ample opportunity to shut down his critics and detractors and block users he disagrees with. 

6. More distraction

With more space comes more opportunity to distract from big issues, like the Russia investigation, a health care repeal and replace vote, and North Korean relations.

UC Berkeley political scientist T.J. Pempel, said in the Pacific Standard, “Whenever he gets into trouble politically … his normal strategy is to dangle something new and different before the media, and everyone will glom onto the new shiny object.”

Longer tweets will give Trump more to dangle.

BONUS: Did we mention war?

Just to reiterate, more space for Trump to push foreign leaders into nuclear war is reason enough to keep Trump away from longer tweets.

One could imagine Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly begging Twitter to keep the president far away from 280 characters of potential damage. For the good of the country.

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